By Rhina Guidos
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Thousands attended the May 20 funeral of a Salvadoran priest found by his parishioners in what some presume is a gang killing.
Parishioners found Father Cecilio Perez Cruz, a 35-year-old priest and pastor of San Jose La Majada parish in Juayua, shot dead in his residence May 18 with a note nearby that said he had not paid “rent,” a euphemism for extortion money, according to preliminary reports from Salvadoran police.
“He was a well-loved son of the Virgin (Mary) … a humble priest, simple, devoted to his people,” said Father Edwin Banos of the Diocese of Santa Ana, El Salvador, in a video posted May 18 on Facebook.
“These have been difficult and sad moments since I found out,” said Father Banos, who told Catholic News Service May 20 that he had studied with Father Perez and that they had been friends for 10 years.
“It hurts. It’s a whole human life truncated,” he told CNS via WhatsApp. “He is a brother and a priest-friend. From the first moment I found out, it’s been tears and pain over his death.”
Father Banos, communications director for Catholic radio and newspaper Radio Fe y Vida y Periodico Digital Nuestra Iglesia in Santa Ana, attended the funeral in Sonzacate, where the slain priest’s parents live. Several bishops from throughout the country and Salvadoran Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez also attended.
“Today, we are suffering, and we ask the Lord and the Virgin Mary to give us peace, tranquility and serenity,” Father Banos said in his video message. “For Cecilio, I offer my care, my appreciation, my love and my hope that he is rejoicing in the eternal life and that you intercede for us … but I also want to manifest my message of conversion to these people who committed this abominable crime.”
In a statement, Bishop Constantino Barrera Morales of Sonsonate, the diocese to which the priest belonged, called on the national police and the justice department to find those guilty of “such an abominable crime” and demanded that they be brought to justice.
In recent months, Catholic organizations and leaders in El Salvador, to no avail, have denounced the lack of justice in the country, including the “impunity” in the death of another Salvadoran priest killed in 2018 during Holy Week.
Father Walter Vasquez Jimenez was traveling with parishioners March 29, 2018, to officiate a Holy Thursday Mass in San Miguel when their car was stopped by an armed group wearing masks. The masked men dragged the priest out of the car and his lifeless body was found later.
Authorities also blamed gangs in the killing but have not arrested anyone in the crime.
“In this moment of profound pain and indignation because of this tragic happening, I want to let all priests, faithful and the people in general know that I energetically condemn this sacrilegious killing of Father Cecilio, and I want us to remain united in prayer and redoubling our measures of security before the great insecurity that reigns in our bloodstained country,” Bishop Barrera said in his statement. “The blood of our selfless pastor is now together with that of the thousands of Salvadorans that each year become victims of this terrible violence that remains for so many years out of control.”
In a news conference May 19, the Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas of San Salvador once again called on national authorities to seek out criminals and asked the court system to carry out justice.
“We stand in solidarity with all the victims of violence, of any type of violence, and we ask the authorities to administer justice in all cases,” he said. “It’s not that we seek revenge, but justice is necessary for the good of the victims and for the good of the whole society, because violence will only be overcome if impunity is not allowed. It is truly worrisome the degree of violence that our country suffers. We must work and pray intensely for peace.”
Father Banos said justice was one of the reasons Father Perez was killed, though he suggested that police look at various motives the killing, including the priest’s denunciation of environmental problems in the area.
“He was a priest seeking justice, he was very fraternal and denounced injustice,” he said in correspondence with CNS. “We believe that is the cause of his murder. He strongly denounced the cutting of trees in his area, and that touches the interests of high-ranking businesspeople.”
In an audio Father Banos provided to CNS, Concepcion Perez, the slain priest’s brother, said Father Perez was “a good person, a holy person until the last day.” Concepcion Perez said although family members were in pain, they found comfort in knowing that “the Catholic Church is the one that provides saints,” because of people who seek the light like his brother.